The word “university,” derived from the Latin “universitas magistrorum et scholarium,” was coined at the University of Bologna in Italy — considered to be the oldest European university. However, what is now a thriving institution attracting students and visitors from all over the world, had no fixed classrooms or student housing when it began in the 11th century.
In fact, a majority of the world’s oldest universities did not kick off with scores of students in huge classrooms. The earliest classrooms were tucked within the winding alleyways of the world’s most ancient living cities.
Here is our list of the world’s 11 oldest universities that will inspire you to embark on an academic journey.
In 859, Fatima al-Fihri wanted to use her inheritance to give back to her community. She used the money to build a mosque for her people that also had an associated school, known as a madrasa.
The mosque that eventually developed into a full-fledged university has been crowned by the Guinness World Records and UNESCO as the world’s oldest degree-granting university. Although both men and women were allowed to study in the university, widespread popularity has helped to increase the female student population over the years.
Al-Azhar University, Egypt
Founded in 975, Egypt’s oldest degree-granting university Al-Azhar offers graduate and postgraduate study programs across a diverse range of subjects such as Islamic law, logic, grammar, and rhetoric.
The university attracts more than 30,000 students a year from all over the world. Over the years, Al-Azhar has also worked with the state to take a stand against what they consider to be fundamentalist practices, defending “the middle way” of Islam.
University of Bologna, Italy
Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is the oldest surviving university in Europe and one of the most prestigious universities in Italy.
Once believed to be the center of canon and civil law, the school has served as a model for modern universities, attracting scholars from all over the world. The first woman to earn a university degree and teach at a university, Bettisia Gozzadini, was educated here.
Oxford University, UK
Established in 1096, Oxford is perhaps the world’s most storied university. In its early years, the university had no buildings, and lectures were organized in hired halls and churches.
Over hundreds of years, the school expanded to include nearly 40 semi-autonomous colleges, six private halls, and a whole host of academic departments. The university has educated 28 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, 72 Nobel laureates, and 160 Olympic medal winners among its many achievements.
University of Salamanca, Spain
Founded under Alfonso IX in 1134, the University of Salamanca was once considered to be one of the leading centers of learning in Europe. The university enjoyed steady acclaim up until the 19th century when a quarter of the institution’s buildings was destroyed by the French after Napoleon’s defeat ended their occupation of Spain.
Today, Salamanca has faculties of philosophy and letters, science, pharmacy, and law.
Cambridge University, UK
Being founded in 1209, Cambridge is the fourth-oldest university in Europe after the University of Bologna, Oxford, and Salamanca.
Believed to have grown out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute, Oxford and Cambridge are jointly referred to as Oxbridge. The university is home to the Cambridge Union -– the world’s oldest debating society -– as is Cambridge University Press, believed to be the world’s oldest university publishing company.
University of Padua, Italy
The University of Padua is located in the city of Padua, in northern Italy. Founded in 1222 and ranked as the world’s fifth-oldest surviving university, the university was ranked “best university” among Italian institutions of higher education in 2016.
The university has a geological museum and the oldest botanical garden in Europe. Among its professors were renowned Renaissance philosophers, artists, and scientists, including Galileo.
University of Naples Federico II, Italy
Despite its huge size, the University of Naples Federico II is still considered one of the best universities in Italy and is particularly notable for research.
Founded in 1224, the university is the oldest public, non-sectarian university. Once the home of reputed scholars and philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Giambattista Vico, the university has educated several notable figures, including Italian political leaders and businessmen.
University of Toulouse, France
Founded in 1229, the University of Toulouse was established by Pope Gregory IX, ending the war with the Albigensians.
In 1969, the university split into three separate universities and numerous smaller institutions. With multiple fields of study, several graduate and doctoral schools, and over 100,000 students, the university is the fifth-largest in France.
University of Coimbra, Portugal
Established in 1290 in Lisbon, the University of Coimbra is a public university located in Portugal. The university went through a number of relocations until it was moved permanently to Coimbra in the 16th century.
Besides being one of the most cosmopolitan Portuguese universities, the university is also a founding member of the Coimbra Group, a group of leading European research universities. Many renowned Portuguese personalities known for their contributions in fields ranging from politics to culture to the sciences have attended the university as students or lecturers.
University of Paris, France
The University of Paris opened its doors for students and scholars in the 13th century. Popularly known as La Sorbonne, the university was formed from a conglomeration of colleges located on the city’s left bank.
Sorbonne is regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Its alumni include Pierre and Marie Curie, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Simon de Beauvoir. In all, students and professors of the university have won 33 Nobel Prizes, six Fields Medals, and one Turing Award.